THERE was a sense that something had to change before too long but Damien Comolli’s departure wasn’t expected today, two days before the FA Cup semi-final, and Comolli’s departure wasn’t necessarily seen by all as the change that needed to be made or the one that would be made.
Comolli arrived shortly after FSG took the club over and was appointed as Director of Football Strategy. In a matter of a couple of months Roy Hodgson, never a popular choice, was replaced as manager on a temporary basis by Kenny Dalglish – the popular choice by some distance. When Kenny’s role was made permanent towards the end of last season Comolli’s job title was also changed and he got what seemed to be a promotion to Director of Football.
The change of manager happened when the January transfer window was already open and by the end of it Fernando Torres and Ryan Babel had left, with Luis Suárez and Andy Carroll coming in.
With Dalglish still only a caretaker boss at the time those signings were bold ones and although it always seemed unlikely that Comolli would buy a player a manager didn’t want it was also unlikely he’d buy players he thought the next manager – if Dalglish didn’t stay on – wouldn’t see as valuable members of the squad.
The statement from the club about Comolli’s departure gave the usual vague “mutual consent” reason for the separating of ways but mutual consent usually means an agreement on a severance package regardless of who made the decision to end the relationship – or why they made that decision.
Fenway Sports Group and Liverpool FC confirmed today that Director of Football Damien Comolli has left the Club by mutual consent.
Principal Owner John Henry said: “We are grateful for all of Damien’s efforts on behalf of Liverpool and wish him all the best for the future.”
Liverpool Chairman Tom Werner added: “The Club needs to move forward and we now have a huge game on Saturday. It is important that everyone joins us in supporting the manager and gets behind Kenny and the team and focuses on a strong finish to the season.”
Damien Comolli commented: “I am grateful to have been given the opportunity to work at Liverpool and am happy to move on from the Club and back to France for family reasons. I wish the Club all the best for the future.”
It isn’t clear from the statement if it was family reasons that prompted the departure or if Comolli decided that he’d go back to France after being told he was no longer required at Liverpool. However, it’s understood that it’s the latter, that Liverpool decided to make some changes and Comolli didn’t fit in with those changes.
Kenny Dalglish was quick to tell the media that the signings made since his own return weren’t made against his wishes: “I had a fantastic working and personal relationship with Damien, since he came in he was really helpful in every transfer target we went for.
“Everybody that has come into the club since Damien has been here has been my choice. Whoever I wanted, Damien went away and did a fantastic job in bringing them in. “
Kenny was hardly like to list players he didn’t really want or even hint that there were any he wasn’t happy about being signed. But a large part of the criticism of Liverpool’s signings hasn’t so much been their abilities; it’s been more about the price paid for those abilities. Had Liverpool paid £8m a piece for the likes of Carroll, Henderson and Downing it’s unlikely there’d be as much criticism – although that wasn’t the case with Charlie Adam, who cost much less and has been criticised on and off over the course of the season.
When Rafa Benítez was Liverpool boss it was clear that the manager was not getting what he’d asked for in terms of transfers. Although the latter days of his reign saw promises broken (and plans messed up) the issues earlier on were with the way the money allocated was being spent. Delays in moving for players saw bargain buys turned into overpriced signings and although Rafa was not entirely blameless in terms of the success of his signings it was clearly not the best way to work. And many of Rafa’s signings were hugely successful, both in terms of what they did on the pitch and what they earned the club if sold.
Whatever blame might be apportioned outside of the club what matters more is who is responsible for transfer strategy inside the club. Calls have been made for Liverpool to have the same philosophy on football at all levels, something Rafa Benítez started to implement, meaning the academy would be far more likely to produce the kind of players the first team needed. Coaches from Barcelona were brought in to help start this policy, but that project wasn’t seen through to the first team because before it had really got going Benítez was sacked and Hodgson arrived as boss.
By the time Kenny arrived the dust hadn’t really settled on the events of the previous 18 months and perhaps Liverpool were still unsure of exactly what they needed. Purchases made haven’t been used in the way observers would expect – Andy Carroll rarely starting, Stewart Downing rarely playing with Carroll, Suárez and Carroll not getting many opportunities to form a partnership. All of this makes Carroll – a last minute signing to replace Torres in that first transfer window under FSG – look like a signing made in haste.
In the summer Liverpool made a bid in excess of £20m for a defender who ultimately chose to join another club – but that wasn’t followed up with the pursuit of an alternative of the same kind of quality. Coates is seen as one for the future – as shown by his limited appearances – so why didn’t Liverpool buy a defender ready to go straight into the first team after failing with their first attempt?
Lucas went out with a long term injury halfway through the season and Liverpool did not bring in cover for him during the January transfer window. Since then the Reds have struggled to find a central midfield that works, with any number of combinations of players used.
Kenny isn’t the type to say publicly if he did have any problems with Comolli, but he made it clear there were no hard feelings between the two as far as he was concerned: “It is sad to see anyone leave the football club. He goes with my best wishes and I hope it is not long before we can meet up again. For me, we had a good relationship.”
Asked if it was disappointing to see Comolli leave he said: “It is disappointing – but I suppose nothing much surprises me in football.”
The news was announced as Liverpool were making their final preparations for Saturday’s cup semi-final and Dalglish was asked if it would mess their plans up: “We are having a meeting with the players this morning so it may have delayed that a bit. It is a big game on Saturday. It is a cup semi-final with more added to it because it is a local derby.”
More added to it perhaps because of how much it means to Liverpool to get into that final and then to get their hands on a second trophy.
More added to it perhaps because Comolli’s departure isn’t necessarily a sign that the owners have full faith in Kenny Dalglish.
In the eyes of the more impatient fan the Carling Cup isn’t enough, but the FA Cup alongside it isn’t enough either. The more considered supporters – as frustrated as they’ve been by Liverpool’s performances and results in the league – know that it takes time to fix a problem as big as the one Roy Hodgson left behind and know that mistakes are going to be made along the way.
It’s not just on the pitch where mistakes have been made and there have been questions asked about who is actually steering the club at the higher levels.
The owners are obviously in touch long distance and keep an eye on things from the States – but is that enough for what Liverpool need? Ian Ayre has been MD since FSG came in, temporarily at first and then permanently, but the club have never filled the vacancy of CEO. Efforts were made and Liverpool were reportedly close to bringing in José Ángel Sánchez for the role but the search would prove fruitless.
A question that also needs to be asked is if the club is being steered in the same direction at all levels. Is the ‘unity’ Ian Ayre spoke of recently still there? As the dust settles on that turbulent period the new owners walked into some of the other underlying problems and bad decisions of, particularly, that last six months under Hicks, Gillett and Purslow, might just be standing out like a sore thumb.
Also imminent are the club’s first accounts since the owners took over, due by the end of this month.
Short of some genuine personal crisis hastening his departure Liverpool would be highly unlikely to remove Comolli without having someone lined up to at least take over some parts of his job.
A new CEO – of the right kind – would be able to negotiate transfers and contracts, a role that doesn’t seem to be one that Ian Ayre would relish, but that would still leave a requirement for someone to take charge of the scouting part of the role Comolli was doing.
A new CEO might just help out in other ways. Liverpool lack the influence other clubs have at The FA and The Premier League, another issue that needs to be addressed.
A new CEO – of the right kind – would also be able to share some of the load heaped on the manager by the press. Despite Comolli playing a large part in what would ultimately lead to Luis Suárez losing his case with the FA he wasn’t heard speaking out in support of either the player or his manager. The MD and the owners also kept very quiet throughout and despite denials of leaving Kenny ‘out to dry’ there was a lot of anger from fans at the silence from everyone at the club from Kenny upwards.
Communications from the club aren’t the best, especially with the press, and something definitely needs to be done. Changes already made in the area of press relations haven’t improved those relations.
It’s no surprise the club are suspicious about some media, but when they’re acting suspicious towards those who actually have the club’s best interests at heart perhaps it’s time for a change there too.
Comolli leaving should be the first of a number of changes – but not just of personnel. The club’s structure needs to be looked at again.
A new CEO wouldn’t necessarily leave Ian Ayre out of a job but it might lead to him shifting his focus full time back to the commercial side. The boardroom would be a little cluttered with a CEO, an MD and a Director of Football all treading on each other’s toes. A CEO, a commercial director and someone acting as the bridge between the boardroom and the manager and the academy and the manager (not necessarily given the title of Director of Football) might give each member the room to do what they do best.
For now Kenny Dalglish has to get his players focussed on what comes next, which is what he does best. And what comes next is that FA Cup semi-final, a game Liverpool really need to win.